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,Kill the Umpire

Kill the Umpire

Kill the Umpire? It's a phrase out of bygone American folklore. These days, given the growing demand to replace fallible human umps with technology, it's only a matter of time until brute steel Transformer figures are calling balls and strikes and tossing belligerent players on a high arc into the bleachers. There's no getting around the perception that Kill the Umpire (1950) is largely a screenful of amiable nothingness. But a few things keep it from being dismissible. It has a time capsule quality that encompasses a pretty good capture of the baseball clips of the era. Black and white helps, too. It feeds the nostalgia. Like so many films that blur the line between them and TV sitcoms of the era, it speaks of postwar America's rage for a return to normalcy, with domesticity enshrined in images of housewives preparing dinners in taffeta gowns for meek husbands surrounded by wall-to-wall chintz.

Mostly, though, it rides the sturdy, lovable lug persona of William Bendix. He played his share of thugs and primitives, slapping Alan Ladd around in Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key (1942) and convincingly shoveling coal into a ship's boiler in Eugene O'Neill's proletarian sympathy vote, The Hairy Ape (1944). But mostly this son of Manhattan, born in the shadow of the Third Avenue El to a family with classical music in its DNA, is remembered as the personification of lunch-bucket, working class icon Chester A. Riley. Bendix's The Life of Riley was a radio hit that handily survived the transition to TV and got the movie treatment, too (1949), partly because burly Bendix, good-natured and sincere, if not too bright, satisfied the image radio listeners had of him, with his mastery of the slow burn and his immortal tag line: "What a revoltin' development DIS is!"

His character in Kill the Umpire, Bill Johnson, is faced with only one revolting development, but it's a big one. He's an ex-ballplayer who can't keep a job because his bosses always catch him sneaking off to the ballpark and firing him. The film was made just in time - only a few years later most ballgames would be played at night, and he wouldn't have had this problem. His wife (Una Merkel) suffers, but not silently, although his two daughters (one engaged to a ballplayer) are more sympathetic. His father-in-law (Ray Collins) suggests Bill become an umpire, so he'll always be where he wants to be now that his playing days are over. The only snag is that Bill has been taught to believe that umpires are the planet's lowest life form. Having no choice, though, he heads off to umpire school, but with an agenda. He's determined to flunk out, preferring unemployment to what he regards as the ultimate baseball disgrace.

The school's head, Jimmy O'Brien (William Frawley, soon to be immortalized on TV's I Love Lucy) is inclined to oblige him, but when the grizzled old pro gets a phone call from his buddy, Bill's father-in-law, he grits his teeth and remains blind to Bill's buffooneries. For a time. He finally blows up and pitches Bill out of the school. But when Bill, waiting for the train back home, umpires a sandlot game and discovers that umpires do indeed have a raison d'etre, he relents, begs his way back in and gets serious about his profession-to-be. He soldiers through a torrent of sight gags, involving an over-inflated chest protector, being stuck to the floor when he jumps off a bench wearing spikes, and misappropriating the eye drops of his roommate (Tom D'Andrea), then starts seeing double while working behind the plate.

When he starts calling "ball, ball" and "strike, strike" some league scouts are taken with what they think is his emphatic manner and passion for the game. (Bendix's passion for baseball was the real thing - as a teen he was a batboy for the Giants and Yankees, and was trusted to run errands for Babe Ruth, although the less said the better about Bendix's heartfelt but off-base The Babe Ruth Story of 1948.) Nicknamed "Two Call" Johnson, Bill gets a job in the Texas League. (Names just don't get more Texan than the name of the league boss, Sam Austin!) Bill does OK until two things happen. Gamblers slip him a bribe to favor the team they bet on (not knowing that straight arrow Bill immediately reported it to the league office) and a controversial call at the plate has an entire Texas town camped outside his hotel ready to lynch him (the film seems shockingly unaware of how chilling and unfunny the lynch mob stuff is!). The only one who can back Bill's call is the catcher who bobbled the throw, but he's lying unconscious in a hospital.

Which brings us to Frank Tashlin. Lloyd Bacon directed Kill the Umpire, but that studio veteran, while justly remembered for some classic musicals -- 42nd Street (1933), Footlight Parade (1933) - really was out of his element with this slight material. Tashlin, who began his own directing career a year later with Bob Hope in The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), later became best known for helming Jerry Lewis comedies. Here, he gets story and screenwriting credit and it's his thumb print that seems most evident. Before he worked in feature films, he spent 20 years as an animator for Max Fleischer, Disney and Warners and it shows.

Kill the Umpire is filled with what were to become Tashlin's trademark eruptions of slapstick, as if in the hope that their manic energy would bring to life characters he sensed were hollow but didn't know how to flesh out, much less get inside. Thus, Kill the Umpire is capped by a big car chase. Bill and his buddy race by ambulance to the ballpark for the big game Bill refuses to back away from calling, with murderous townspeople and angry, trigger-happy gamblers flooring it in hot pursuit. Not that any of it is to be taken too seriously, though. Certainly it doesn't take itself seriously, which is one of its virtues, even if it means giving a free pass to some of the cultural assumptions on which it rests. Innocence has its disarming side, and Bendix uses it to carry the rest.

by Jay Carr



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